If death is always trying to spirit Carol away, like a demon lover, and psychosis comes suddenly for Anna, like an unpremeditated assault, it’s life that grinds Bonnie down. Beans suggests the tremendous effort Gabby makes to move through the world with anything like sympathy or grace.
The tone throughout is cool, a consequence of Birch’s style, which privileges language and rhythm over emotion, a negotiation of form and content reminiscent of Caryl Churchill. This coolness also puts distance — perhaps necessary — between the pain of the women’s inner lives and the fact of their expression. After all, a playwright can’t do an hour and 45 minutes of unadulterated agony. Or, rather, a playwright absolutely can; but I rarely want to see it. Mariana Sanchez’s blue-green set studded with houseplants — some fecund, some withering and Jiyoun Chang’s lights tend cool, too.
Ideally, Blain-Cruz and the cast would have had a few more weeks to work through the play’s complex rhythms, to make each pause seem like the response an interaction demands rather than what the script requires, to find the music — grave, adagio — in the not-quite naturalism.
The production, beautifully designed, does aestheticize women’s suffering, though it rarely romanticizes it. And were you looking for catharsis? Ha! What’s more fraught is Birch’s declining to see mental illness as something incapable of treatment or productive intervention. Carol and Anna both undergo electroconvulsive therapy, and Carol has sporadic access to talk therapy. Nothing helps. This suggests suicide as an inherited trait, as direct and inevitable in its expression as red hair or detached earlobes. But do Carol’s fuguelike depression, Anna’s psychosis and Bonnie’s clenched anhedonia really share DNA?
Still, none of the women experience suicide as a choice. Carol keeps trying to choose the life she doesn’t even want, with death drive as her pre-existing condition. “I have stayed,” she says. “I have Stayed. For as long as I possibly can.”
The play’s coolness means that you may not feel everything that a narrative like this might allow you to feel, at least not right away. Me? I was never even close to tears, though I heard sniffling from several sides. But “Anatomy of a Suicide” isn’t the kind of show you can see then cavalierly head out for drinks, recycling your playbill along the way. It is a drama like the blue heart of a flame; it looks like winter even as it scorches you.
Anatomy of a Suicide
Through March 15 at the Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.